WSJ.com has an interesting forum called The Expat Life, which results in frequent comments from all over the world. One in particular caught my eye. Below is a copy of the text, which can also be found at http://forums.wsj.com/viewtopic.php?p=47495.
Steve MacDonald writes from Santander, Spain:
Welcome to the Expat world. I am 57 and moved from the states at age 11 (1961). Since then I have made periodic “pit stops” in the USA of 17 years accumulated. The rest of the time I have spent living the Expat life, first as a kid and then as an adult. I have lived in 12 countries including the states, several more than once, on every continent bar Antarctica. I attended 11 schools. My first three kids by my first wife were born in Boston, Sydney and Mexico City (the baby is now 19). My last was born in 2006 in Santander Spain (second wife). I currently run a company in Northern Spain and will retire in 2009 to the Philippines.
In short I have some experience, as an expat kid, expat adult with kids and an expat doing business in multinational settings. For what it is worth I will share with you some lessons learned.
1. Kids are always going to be homesick for what they left behind. In your case this is the states, but it could well be China on the next move. Every once in a while you get a really special place (mine was Tokyo in the 64 – 66) where everyone is ecstatic from the outset, but this is a rarity.
2. The loneliest place in the world in a school cafeteria where you know no one. Any breaking in period in a new environment and school is really tough. This is less so in International schools as all the kids have been there and done that, and thus are more receptive to continual new comers – but it is tough nonetheless. A solid family back up is essential for the security required to bridge this period.
3. Even though they complain now, the kids are gaining a perspective of the world that will serve them in good stead for the rest of their lives. Gaining insights into different cultures and places provides them with a set of paradigms and perspectives they can not get any other way. The value is much less in Asian luxury vacations, although this is a neat thing, than in the experience of living outside the USA norm. They will not appreciate this for some time, but will grow to appreciate it and occasionally brag about it.
4. If you spend a prolonged time overseas, they will find they have less and less in common with their friends back in the states, as their frame of reference experiences are radically different – but this is a subject for another time.
5. As mentioned in #2, the cohesiveness in the family unit is paramount. Hopefully these new experiences will draw you all closer together – if for no other reason than you no longer have a family/friend support group to depend on. It is super important for the kids.
6. Any move is hardest at the outset for the non working spouse. It is this person who gets the kids settled, finds the place to live and makes it a home with support infrastructure (schools, doctors, groceries, clothes stores etc) and is tasked with finding a life in a totally new world from scratch. The working spouse has work for the majority of the day – which can be difficult but is still familiar and by contrast a relatively easy adjustment.
7. Never forget that you are a guest in someone else’s country. You keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open about what goes on within the country. Politics and religion are not subjects to be discussed with citizens of the country where you live, nor within earshot of said citizens.
8. In the context of #7, you learn the bad stuff about living there and then proceed to focus your life on the good stuff – with the bad serving only as what to stay away from. My family has had assignments in places with tough reputations for living, but never had a bad assignment by adhering to this golden rule. There is always neat stuff to see and do.
9. You can talk about the expat life with other expats, but do not expect understanding from friends and family in the states – the paradigms simply do not fit. How does one explain to someone in the states the Asian habit of planning one’s day at the bottom of an escalator? Your frame of reference will also become the country where you are living – and trying to relate your experiences in what to you is sensible context will leave them thinking you are country dropping in an attempt to impress.
10. Do not fall into the trap on Home Leave of running around trying to see everyone. You flew from the other side of the globe, let them come to you. Until you learn this, vacations will become an endurance test and be far less then relaxing and enjoyable.
11. The life ain’t for everyone. I have lived my entire life this way and have never wanted to do anything else. My sister lives in Portland Maine and will never leave. One of the reasons I am on my second wife is the stress of the expat life on my home body, roots requiring, language challenged ex.
Hope the above is of some use. There are a lot of us out here and most of us truly enjoy the experiences.